Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri says his team needs to start well against Cambodia in its Group-D match in the AFC Asian Cup final qualifying round, beginning at the Salt Lake Stadium here on June 8.

Chhetri, who played in the Asian Cup in 2011 and 2019, said the team needed to make the most of its preparations. “We are much better than what we were 35-40 days back. If you don’t do well against Cambodia, then you lose half of the battle,” said Chhetri at a roundtable interaction here on Friday.

“I told the boys qualifying is very important. If the country wants to be in the World Cup, you have to be there at the Asian Cup regularly. It’s like the World Cup for us.

“I want to qualify. If I am not there, my country will be there (in 2024).”

Even though there was an indication that the local authorities would allow only 12000 spectators, possibly in anticipation of a low turnout due to the 8.30 p.m. matches, per match at the huge venue, Chhetri, who played several years of club football here, expected good support from the passionate fans.

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“The support we get in Kolkata is unbelievable. The National team is playing in the country after three years. That’s the point of playing at Salt Lake. These three (opposing) teams should feel it.”

Chhetri, who would complete 17 years in international football during the tournament, said the present Indian side was fit enough to compete well with any opposition.

However, the Indian captain admitted that the team had a ‘crazy graph’ in recent years and it needed to be ‘consistent.’ 

He was worried about the habit of the Indian side conceding late goals.

“It’s not about fitness. We are a fit team now. It's more about the mentality and how we have to defend.”

Chhetri did not agree that the Indian Super League (ISL) was responsible for Indian players’ below-par showing in international matches. “If as a team we are not doing well, then it is the mistake of all of us. It is not because of ISL. When we played Jordan, the speed was less. You are going to be as good as the league. If you are playing 20-30 matches in one standard, then you will be of that standard. So when you go and play against Jordan you have to uplift your standard a little bit. They are faster and you have less time.”

The 37-year-old said some good habits kept him relevant among the younger players. “It’s because of what I eat and how much I sleep. It’s about taking care of your body.

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“Right now I am enjoying it. I enjoy sprinting with Udanta, going for headers with Jhingan, and scoring with Gurpreet once in six months, he is so good! I know in the age I am in it might be like a snap. One day I am like I am done. It’s not easy to count your broccoli, get up at Six O’clock every day, and do a 30-minute yoga session before everyone wakes up. I am not trying to boast but that’s a very strict life I live. And I have done it for 21 years. Because I am enjoying it, I am a part of it. The day I don’t, I will be done. I cannot give you a number.”

Looking back, Chhetri said, “My future would have been different if I had not got Bob (Houghton) and Sukhi sir (Sukhwinder Singh at JCT). What they taught me was not what to do, but what not to do. I was very flashy… One day Bob called me and showed me Bhaichung bhai. He said learn from him. The match is 0-0, there's nothing fancy, the match finishes 1-0. You can be rest assured that Bhaichung has scored. If you are a striker, score a goal.”

Chhetri said he was apprehensive when the Committee of Administrators (CoA) took over the affairs of the All India Football Federation (AIFF).  “I was scared because when the headlines came it affected me. When you go into it, you understand that it is not that dangerous and things will subside. I hope it is under control and India does not get a ban because that would be a catastrophe for the whole country and me as I am 37 and playing my last matches. You never know when your last match will be.

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Chhetri also spoke about his bonding with cricketer Virat Kohli. “We talk a lot about food and jokes. He is completely funny, in an effortless manner. We have gone through ups and downs. We have a lot in common. That’s why we bond. In between we also talk about sports,” said Chhetri.

 Even though he has not decided when to call it a day, Chhetri said he would like to “stay in a jungle house, away from city life, read books with no alarms and no phones.” He expressed his desire to write an autobiography after his career got over.